1. No Number 1 Controversy This Time
Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, Serena won two majors and the Year End Championships, Azarenka only one major. But there can be little argument that week in and week out, Azarenka was the best player on tour.
Azarenka’s transformation has not been a drastic one. She has always looked a player capable of great things. Restraint, both in her attitude and her disposition in rallies has given her the extra 2% to push on to the next echelon of the game. In the past, it has been easy for us to build a narrative on why Azarenka has not done better. Her poor attitude. Her health. Her ability to come blazing out of the gates in big matches only to have those same flames consume her late into the match.
To start, the poor attitude seems all but gone. There is a fine line between cockiness and extreme confidence, and most would argue that Azarenka, at one point, fell on the wrong side of the coin. Often letting the little things get to her and being poor in losing, it looked like the type of thing that would hold her back. Suddenly those cries of frustrations have turned into healthy, self motivating leg slaps. Hair whips of determination and under the breath grunts “keep going”. It’s been turned inward in a positive way.
Her game has developed in a similar way. Vika at times appeared a ball basher who simply overwhelmed opponents with her weight of shot, with bouts of inconsistency. She has learned great constraint on the forehand, both in her regular, powerful topspin shot as well as in her more defensive, spinning forehand. When the ball isn’t in the greatest position for her, she’s become much better at finding ways to spin the ball cross court to gain time, instead of simply trying to rip it and hope for the best. Combining this with great movement, she can quickly get back into points and get back on top. She knows how to build points and she knows how to finish them off – and it’s a treat to see.
2. Serena is Here To Stay
For a time, it was hard to know if Serena would ever play tennis again. With a new lease on life, Serena is looking as fit and as calm as ever, a truly deadly combination. Wimbledon was a stroll in the park, and the US Open was straight forward outside of a very difficult final. The Year End Championship fell under a similar theme. She plans to train in Paris with her coach over the offseason, a first for her, and likely has her eye on doing another “Serena slam” and winning all four major titles in a row.
I’ve heard it noted several times, and it is hard to disagree. While Serena is “old” in tennis terms at 31, the time that she has missed through out her career, including recently, may help to considerably lengthen her career. Many players expire around 30 because after 15 years of serious grind, they burn out mentally, their bodies fall apart, and their endurance goes. None of these appear to be an issue for Serena, and she is so fit and with such natural power, it is difficult to see her dropping off any time within three to five years. Mind blowing stuff.
3. Another Year of Stability Should Await in 2013
Let’s be honest. At times, the past few years have been difficult for the WTA. We diehards don’t so much mind the top ranking being tossed around, or top 20 players winning major titles. However, sadly, it has been difficult to justify the validity of a tour with a number 1 without a slam and players coming from nowhere to win big titles. With Azarenka, Sharapova and Serena taking home all majors this year, it would be difficult to bet against them splitting all four between them again next year. While players such as Radwanska, Kvitova and Li Na will always have a chance against them, it is hard to see one of the big three not topping them in a final (much like the Williams/Radwanska Wimbledon final). A WTA “big four” sounds appealing to match it up to the ATP side of things, but in truth it is a “big three” who should continue raking in big trophies in 2013.
4. Castle Defenders
While a look at the final eight in Istanbul lends itself to a powerful baseline style, three names pop out: Radwanska, Kerber, and Errani. These players tend to be in tough against the top, hard hitting ladies (they went a combined 1-6 versus the other five, not including Stosur) they have the consistency, fitness, and creativity to consistently outmatch players outside of the top 10. I don’t like the term counterpuncher for any of them: neither of them prey on pace and turn it back on their opponent. Kerber prefers players with pace, but she specifically prefers players that open up the court for her to take advantage of – she doesn’t particularly reverse pace back on an opponent. Radwanska is an incredibly creative, instinctual player, likely with the greatest drop shot I have ever seen, men or women. And at a mere 5’5, Errani can run for days, and uses incredible wrist strength to command a longer handled racquet to cope with pace and push opponents back.
On Twitter I saw several people cry out against the Errani/Radwanska match as terrible matchup, expecting a boring match. While neither are big hitters, they have widely different styles and produced one of the matches of the year. While they may never solve the power puzzles in the way a player like Hingis managed to do, embrace and enjoy these players for all that they offer to the game.
5. The Future of Power
With that being said, it is very clear that the future of the WTA looks very much to favour those with large amounts of power, and there is likely to be more Kvitova winning Wimbledon coming out parties than Schiavone late but great Roland Garros wins. With a big three playing this well, the only way to beat them appears to be beating them at their own game, something Azarenka nearly did at the US Open this year. It’s not just the results, but the quality of results that these three tend to get against players hoping to use creativity, defense or counterpunching – it is very rarely close outside of clay.
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